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How Are Product Management and Project Management Different?

A collaborative blog co-authored by Veronica Thraen of Maven Project Management & JJ Rorie.

Tech companies are often started on a big idea. While big ideas are great, they typically don’t become a product without a market need and an execution plan. In fact, many tech businesses fail because they couldn’t turn their big ideas into reality. The “failure to plan is planning for failure” maxim often rings true.

That’s why Product and Project Management are so critical to the success of today’s organizations, regardless of whether they’re selling products or services. But what’s the difference between the two?

Product Management vs. Project Management

As Steven Haines outlines in The Product Manager’s Desk Reference, Product Management is the business management of products, product lines, or portfolios, holistically, for maximum value creation, across their life cycles.

Product Managers are the product or product line “mini-business” owners. They lead cross-functional product teams. These teams are formed to optimize the product’s market position and financial return over its life cycle and their performance should be consistent with division and corporate strategies. What differentiates cross-functional product teams from project teams (also almost certainly cross-functional) is that project teams disband after the project is over whereas product teams ideally continue for the life of the product.

Product and Project Management are two separate organizational functions. Simply stated, Product Managers outline the why, what and when for a product and Project Managers execute on the plan by working closely with business analysts, development/engineering and QA to ensure that a quality product is released on time and meets all requirements and success criteria. Both are critical for a successful product implementation.

The illustration below outlines how Product and Project Managers typically interact with the new product development process:

product management vs project management what is the difference

Defining The Strategy: Product Management

Products represent the essence of the business – how it thrives, grows and brings revenue to the firm. A robust product strategy and accompanying roadmap is critical to long-term product success.

A Product Manager’s first and foremost job is to ensure the organization launches, maintains and supports products that meet user and market needs. They do this by continuously monitoring the market for trends, competitive forces and other economic and business indicators. Product Managers are also the organization’s advocate for the client, ensuring there is a deep understanding of true, core needs and that the product and services built indeed help solve those needs.

A product strategy clearly and concisely outlines where the product has been, where we want the product to go in the future, how we will get it there and how we know when we’re there. The last two – how we will get it there and how we know we’re there (through conditional progress metrics) are the sweet spot of Product Management and Project Management collaboration.


Implementing The Strategy: Project Management

Projects are the vehicles used to deliver the executable units of the product strategy. In other words, they get the product there—to product launch.

Project Managers lead the teams responsible for making a product vision a reality. They communicate the scope and delivery expectations and work with teams to develop the plan. Project Managers monitor day-to-day activities and alert Product Managers when there are issues, potential risks and roadblocks.

Effective Project Managers can adapt to changing requirements and priorities and can clearly communicate project status to all levels of the organization. They foster a collaborative environment for their teams and engage Product Management for feedback throughout the development process.

Project Management is the force behind how products get launched into market. In fact, an astounding 97% of organizations believe Project Management is critical to business performance and organizational success. [1]

One Manager For Both Product and Project Management Roles

Can both roles be successfully executed by one resource? Yes!  In fact, some companies are doing this today. But there are pros and cons:

  • Separate Reporting Structures – Product Managers typically report into a line of business or marketing organization and Project Managers usually fall under development/engineering, IT or a corporate PMO structure.
  • Different Requirements for Each Role – While there may be overlapping skillsets, these roles often require different strengths. Having one resource may the most cost-effective approach but separating the functions provides a more focused and streamlined way of delivering a quality, competitive product that meets the needs of end users. This is especially key if the organization has more than one product.
  • Open Communication – It’s important that Product and Project Managers work closely with open communication and flexibility throughout the lifecycle. Product Managers rely on Project Managers to deliver their vision no matter what methodology is used. Project Managers look to Product Managers as the sponsor and owner of product – the primary decision maker and escalation point for issues and risks encountered during project execution.

Ultimately, Product Managers and Project Managers have the same goal: successful growth for the organization. They also share some common knowledge, skills and abilities. They both need superb organizational and interpersonal skills. They need to be influencers and leaders. They need a relentless drive to achieve their teams’ goals.


[1] – PricewaterhouseCoopers

JJ Rorie is Vice President and Subject Matter Expert at Sequent Learning Networks, a product management training and advisory firm based in New York, NY. A thought-leader and practitioner, JJ has spent her career helping companies optimize their product management and marketing functions.

Veronica Thraen is the Owner and Principal Consultant at Maven Project Management, a technology project management consulting firm in Phoenix, Arizona that helps growing organizations put processes and tools in place to keep projects on track for long-term growth and success.

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